A raft of new signings prior to the slamming shut of the transfer window is not something that fans of Blackpool Football Club have become accustomed. Reared on slim pickings delivered by the previous regime more inclined to go on holiday or at least AWOL when vital squad strengthening was needed, an approach diametrically opposed to anything that has gone before has at times had the heads of neutral observers and supporters spinning akin to the revolving door of incoming and outgoing transfers since Simon Sadler wrested control of the club from the Oystons.
Head coach Neil Critchley has all but dispensed with the last vestiges of Simon Grayson’s ill-fated second coming at Bloomfield Road. It is often said that a club should be judged not on the successor it appoints after the long and glorious reign of his predecessor has ended, but on who it recruits after that. In that sense David Moyes had little chance of measuring up anywhere near to the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson and whilst not a directly comparable situation, whoever became the first manager of Blackpool’s glorious post-Oyston era wasn’t necessarily the man to implement Sadler’s long-term strategy for the club. And so it has been proven.
At the last count Critchley has in less than six months overseen a churn of 17 arrivals and 21 departures. Incredible. As a reflection of both the head coach and Sadler buying into each other’s philosophy, Critchley has been given the tools to build from the bottom up a holistic, organic approach to acquiring a squad to play what Sadler will hope to be the Liverpool way, if as is presumed that Critchley’s time at Mellwood has translated into how he would like a side in elite football under his aegis to perform. This does not mean a team of tried and tested ringers have been bought to sweep to League One glory, but instead a collection of up and coming lower league rough diamonds in need of polishing before taking the club to the Championship, its natural habitat, and in some cases being sold on to enable further investment in the squad and provide an element of financial return for Sadler’s already sizeable outlay.
It is though a controversial approach. League One is more refined than its fourth-tier counterpart but not greatly so. Staffed in good number by grizzled veterans and loanees from the Championship and Premier League, the pell mell and hurly burly nature of its often rough and tumble nature ensures that a collection of callow youths wishing to walk the ball into the net in pursuit of the perfect goal will be swiftly, and ruthless, dealt with. If Critchley initially believed it was merely a case of turning up at the likes of Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium armed with credentials, a ‘philosophy’, and a whole new squad who expecting to win, Steve Evans’ side and his own brand of football soon dealt the 42-year old a harsh dose of reality.
Some elements of the Grayson-era have been retained; one suspects more out of expediency than a desire to retain their services. Gary Madine offers something far different to the other striking options at Critchley’s disposal but does not gel with the head coach’s preferred 4-3-3 system. Offloading the well-remunerated Madine will in the days of salary caps and limits to squad size be virtually impossible unless the player is willing to take a sizeable pay cut. Despite the 30-year old never really being anything other than less than the sum of his parts, replacing the player with a cheaper option assuming he could have been offloaded is not practical in the current climate. I do though hope that Madine can come good, although he has always given the impression of being a ‘nearly but not quite’ type of player.
Elsewhere, the likes of Sullay Kaikai, Jordan Thorniley, and Teddy Howe all have a story to tell of contrasting fortunes within Grayson’s overall transfer record. The mercurial Kaikai can on his day set alight the division but that day happens too infrequently, with his career at Blackpool increasingly characterized by frequent but mysterious injuries. The modern-day ‘sick note’ equivalent of Darren Anderton, Kaikai may have to play through his pain threshold if his career isn’t to ebb away before it has even started to take effect.
Thorniley and Howe represent differing punts by Grayson but each with a similar story to tell. Signed from Sheffield Wednesday Thorniley was assumed to be part of the answer to Blackpool’s problems at centre back, a position that in recent times has seen the departure of Clark Robertson, Curtis Tilt, Ben Heneghan, and Ryan Edwards. Indeed, Blackpool deployed a bizarre strategy of replacing the Rotherham United-bound Tilt with Bristol City’s Taylor Moore, one of the finest loan players to wear tangerine since Dylan Kerr. By doing this Moore’s profile gained greater prominence from his stellar performances, which has since rightly propelled the player into the Robins’ first team. Blackpool though not only lost Tilt, but also his temporary replacement, a strategy that looked short-sighted and reminiscent of the previous regime. Despite arriving to not inconsiderable fanfare Thorniley has in the main looked all at sea in League One, and found himself behind League Two recruit Marvin Ekpiteta and the temporarily reprieved Michael Nottingham, the latter now having moved on to Accrington Stanley. With the arrival of Daniel Gretarsson and Dan Ballard it was assumed that Thorniley would be defenestrated through the transfer window, but remains at the club until at least January to battle with the Icelandic Gretarsson, Arsenal loanee Ballard, Ekpiteta, and the versatile James Husband for a place in Critchley’s central defence.
Teddy Howe was brought to the club by Grayson on the strength of two apparently memorable performances for his then parent club Reading against Blackpool in the F.A. Cup. Aside from the rather knee jerk reaction to the acquiring of a player in what was a crazy January transfer window that seemed to focus on the number brought in rather than the long-term benefits to the club, Howe soon witnessed his greatest ally, Grayson, being shown the door. Coupled with the suspension of professional football only weeks after the arrival of Critchley Howe’s Blackpool career has been dealt a triple whammy of losing the manager who brought him to the club, not being fancied by his successor, and the novel coronavirus pandemic grinding to a halt any chances the player had of showcasing his talents. Without even an inkling of a move away for the 22-year old during the now closed transfer window, it would seem to be a hard road back to recognition and game time for the right back.
After some frankly disastrous performances which squarely put Critchley’s methods, Sadler’s judgment, and the sourcing of talent by Head of Recruitment Tommy Johnson under the microscope, much called for defensive and midfield reinforcements have arrived at the club. Although Ballard and Gretarsson have yet to demonstrate in tangerine what the can bring to the party a two-year deal for the Icelander and the sourcing of an Arsenal and Northern Ireland centre back, initially on loan from the Emirates, suggests that they are not at the club to simply make up the numbers. Equally, Nottingham Forest right back Jordan Gabriel has been brought to the club to challenge Ollie Turton and has already overtaken Teddy Howe in Critchley’s affections. Gabriel has though shown, similar to Demetri Mitchell at left back, that he is far more adept at going forward than defending. Should in the unlikely event Critchley switch to a 3-5-2 neither player has demonstrated the discipline needed to track back and not behave rashly when confronted with marauding attackers.
Elsewhere in the back-line Luke Garbutt has been brought to Bloomfield Road after being released by Everton. Arguably a Championship standard player Garbutt stood out in what was otherwise a hugely disappointing season for Ipswich Town whilst on loan at Portman Road. Another player who is perhaps more comfortable further forward on the left side of the pitch, Garbutt has already pulled up injured and potentially takes up a sizeable chunk of Blackpool’s wage cap. A protracted period on the sidelines could push the more defensively minded but often rash James Husband over to left back, with Dan Ballard stepping in to partner Ekpiteta in the centre.
Blackpool’s midfield options have been limited since the departures of Callum Guy, Liam Feeney, Callum MacDonald, and Jay Spearing, along with the return of outstanding loanees Kiernan Deswbury-Hall and Connor Ronan to their parent clubs. The signings of Keshi Anderson, Ethan Robson, and Jordan Williams will not have sent shock waves through League One, but alongside Grant Ward amount to the sum total of Blackpool’s midfield options. Frankly, it should not be surprising that early results have been so poor when the three in midfield which Critchley prefers can only be drawn from the aforementioned quartet. Williams did have a reasonable game on Saturday at Crewe Alexandra, but the Gresty Road outfit are not exactly one of the teams predicted to be among this season’s leading lights. Arriving on deadline day despite being ‘on Blackpool’s radar since the summer’ former Barnsley man Kenny Dougall will give some much needed competition to Williams and Anderson, whilst Liverpool youngster Ben Woodburn, a predicted future star but whose injury record has marred greater progress, will give Blackpool’s midfield greater attacking depth.
Quite what Critchley’s preferred team is, to be drawn from a squad that Thorniley and Howe aside seems to be vying for his attention is anyone’s guess, with perhaps the head coach himself being unsure what would be his ideal starting eleven. Fans and observers can only judge the players they have already seen and not those who have arrived but haven’t yet played in a competitive fixture, but Ballard, Gretarsson, and Woodburn are surely at the club to play, although their introductions may be staggered. Despite some uncertain moments that have added further fuel to those who doubt his ability and preference to former custodian Mark Howard, goalkeeper Chris Maxwell has little competition from youngster Jack Sims and Slovakian Alex Fojticek.
Neil Critchley now has approximately 27 players at his disposal, consisting of a squad limit of 22 that can be supplemented with an unlimited number of Under-21’s. As baptisms of fire go the head coach has had one like no other perhaps in the history of the modern game, with a career at the seaside brought screaming to a halt by Covid-19, followed by a protracted pre-season to implement Sadler’s wishes and his own methodology. In what has been a highly unusual strategy and one not without its critics, Blackpool desire for Championship football will not have potential for it to brought about until Critchley’s intake fully find their feet, gel, and play to their individual and collective potential. There are no guarantees that this will come to pass, but a desire to place significant distance from the club’s ruinous recent past and the constraints imposed by Covid-19 ensure that Blackpool’s chosen route out of League One is pockmarked with more obstacles than could ever have been envisaged.